I’ve been thinking about them both, especially in relation to the Association for Mormon Letters, and I keep painting my pedestrian mind into a corner. On the one hand, I very much understand and agree with the impetus behind both projects. I have a comparatists general bias towards diversity, towards a variety of attempts at solving (or fostering) certain cultural needs. A multiplicity of ideologies. Competing discourses. All that good stuff. On the other hand, as a PR practitioner, I can’t help but see a lack of strong brands in the world of Mormon arts. I see a cacophony of weak voices. A lack of authoritative discourse. Not that people aren’t trying. But every movement lacks at least one substantial attribute.
As always, my understanding/perception of the field is limited and may be wrong. But here’s what I see:
1. Whether they spin it this way or not, the Whitney Awards are a direct challenge to the Association for Mormon Letters awards. It’s an understandable challenge. The AML Awards have not always done well by genre titles (with the exception of young adult/children’s literature and historical fiction — although oftentimes those awards go to nationally published titles rather than titles published solely for the Mormon market). And in spite of its grand name (Orson F. Whitney’s major form was the epic poem — one wonders what he would think of the current state of Mormon letters/publishing), the Whitneys are focused on genre works. And although in the official rules state that works need not be published by Mormon publishers nor authors associated with LDStorymakers, it is mainly genre authors published by Covenant that are driving the awards. And this is not to say that the AML Awards are without conflicts of interest. I don’t really know, but at the very least, the AML Awards are sometimes quite idiosyncratic.
But I don’t want to get too bogged down here. The main point is this: both the AML Awards and the Whitneys have very good reasons for the way they exist. They also are hampered — the AML Awards by the fact that they ignore a large part of the market, are sometimes idiosyncratic and don’t have the best marketing; the Whitneys by the fact that they appear to be a bit too self-congratulatory and are taking on a brand (that Orson F. Whitney “Shakespeares and Miltons of our own” quote again) that promises more than I think the awards really deliver. Is this the case where the diversity is better than the dilution? As the Whitneys are quite new, we’ll have to wait and see. But I can say that having the two awards around to compare and contrast really exposes their separate weaknesses.
2. BYU Studies Review appears to simply be the online posting of reviews of creative work that appear in the print version. Actually, the way the put it is: “to take all [the print] reviews, make them available to the LDS community, and update the reviews more frequently than our journals.” In this sense, it competes with the print (and sometimes online) reviews in Dialogue, Irreantum and Sunstone as well as AML-List Reviews. And I guess you could toss AMV in there too, although we don’t do many reviews. Just like with the Whitney Awards, BYU Studies Review is completely understandable. In most (if not all) cases, it’s content they already have, and reviews are the least costly thing to post online in terms of not riling up print subscribers. Like the journal itself, it’s a nice outlet for academics who want to engage in criticism/reviews, but aren’t comfortable with the association with Dialogue or Sunstone and are above joining the amateurs/independents on the AML-List.
The problem is that it becomes yet another place to go for reviews. And so far at least, there isn’t much posted there. Indeed the Art, Music, New Media and Theater categories are all empty. The latest book review is from May 15; the newest film review is from June 10 — and both are of works that didn’t come out in 2007 (The Conversion of Jeff Williams and “New York Doll”). That’s just not going to drive consistent traffic (and since there aren’t RSS feeds, you can’t passively track updates). Diversity? To a certain extent. They do tend to have nicely written reviews (as one might expect). But on the hand, it’s also just dilution. There’s nothing there that isn’t treated elsewhere — both online and in print.
3. I could come up with more examples, but one more should suffice. One of the things A Motley Vision supports (and I’m working to do more of it) is the boutique publishers that publish fiction, poetry and creative nonfiction, especially works that hit that sweet spot of faithful but not didactic; well-crafted (even literary) but still approachable. It’s why we post stuff about Zarahemla Books and Mormon Arts and Letters here. And why you may also soon hear more about Parables Publishing as well as another effort that’s (hopefully) in the works. And there may be more out there (if you think you fit the ethos, contact me).
But the problem here (and this is a problem that is endemic to many efforts in the field) is that these small publishers are dependent on the work (and financing) of just one or two individuals. They are often short-lived affairs. And a related phenomenon is self-published (or partially self-published) novels from publishers like Cedar Fort. I am grateful for all these efforts. Most of the Mormon works I value come from these sources. But again, is this type of diversity really fruitful or does it just dilute the audiences and publicity and resources?
So that’s the issue as I see it. I don’t really have any answers for how things should change. And I admit that I’m part of the problem — not AMV so much as the Popcorn Popping experiment. But I’m going to think about this and see if any brilliant ideas pop into my head. Or at least any ideas that don’t require a 40 million endowment*. Meanwhile, what do you all think?
*Not to discourage any potential funders out there. If you have the money and the interest, e-mail me.** I could put together a proposal for you in less than a week, including mission statement, staffing, grants programs, strategic partnerships, marketing/communications strategy, and more.
** No, I’m not really being serious here. But if someone did have the money, I could get real serious, real quick.